Seattle Now & Then: A look at first hill from the courthouse roof, 1917

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: A 1917 pan towards First Hill looking northeast from the roof of the King County Courthouse. Courtesy: Museum of History and Industry
NOW: Because of the 1929-1931 topping of the Courthouse with eight added floors, Jean Sherrard had to use his long pole instead above southwest corner of Fourth Avenue and James Street.

This roof-top prospect taken by a Webster and Steven Studio photographer is rare.  Never have I come upon another First Hill portrait recorded from the King County Court House roof, with the exception of a few snapshots that look south over Jefferson Street and onto the public building’s adjoining Court House Park.  The original roof of the King County Courthouse was a mere Five stories although its footprint filled the block bordered by James and Jefferson Streets and Third and Fourth Avenues, and still does.

We may treat this as a panorama of First Hill’s mid-section extending from James Street, with its slots for the street’s namesake cable railway on the far right, to the surviving dome of the Methodist-Protestant church at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Marion Street, on the far left.  A missing dome or cupola is St James.  The Cathedral’s twin-towers at Marion Street and 9th Avenue are on the far right horizon.  The dome crashed to the floor from the weight of the snow collected on the church’s roof in during the Big Snow of 1916. Central School with its own two towers breaking the First hill horizon above Sixth Avenue and Madison Street was removed for the building of the Interstate-5 Freeway in the mid-1960s.

The first five floors of the Court House took five years to complete, between 1914 and 1917.  By 1917 here were plenty of high-rise structures in the neighborhood including the then still highest building west of the Mississippi River: the Smith Tower holding 42 stories above the northeast corner of Jefferson Street and Yesler Way.  Other surviving towers include the Alaska Building at the southeast corner of Second Ave. and Cherry Street and kitty-corner to it the 18-story Hoge building.  There are others.

We found a year for the pan in the Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey billboard advertising facing James Street. It is second-from-the-right in the broken line-up of Foster and Kleiser signs seen here directly above the crown molding of the Court House..  We found the year, 1917, on-line, and it fits.  The circus was in town on Monday, August 20, time enough after the Big Snow of 1916 to patch the roof.

Photographer Frank Shaw -sometimes a regular here- on the freeway bridge on a day in 1984 when the speed lanes were open to pedestrians and bikers only.

The clutter of clapboard flats on the right of the featured photo is the gift of the relatively cheap lumber sold to the city’s many developers and the booms in its population and so also its housing in the late 1890s and after.  The rough edges cut by assorted street regrades leave some scars around the center of the pan, which is also well-lined with parked cars.  By 1917 family cars were nearly affordable.


Anything to add, paisans?  More of the same Jean, meaning pixs that fit to some extent the who-what-where-when and even the why (sometimes) of the featured photograph.












Links to previous Now & Then post

THEN: On his visit to the Smith Tower around 1960, Wade Stevenson recorded the western slope of First Hill showing Harborview Hospital and part of Yesler Terrace at the top between 7th and 9th Avenue but still little development in the two blocks between 7th and 5th Avenues. Soon the Seattle Freeway would create a concrete ditch between 7th and 6th (the curving Avenue that runs left-to-right through the middle of the subject.) Much of the wild and spring fed landscape between 6th and 5th near the bottom of the revealing subject was cleared for parking. (Photo by Wade Stevenson, courtesy of Noel Holley)

THEN: When it was built in 1864 Charles and Mary Terry’s home was considered the finest in Seattle. (Courtesy Museum of History and Industry)

THEN: Looking north from Yesler Way over the Fifth Avenue regrade in 1911. Note the Yesler Way Cable rails and slot at the bottom. (Courtesy, Seattle Municipal Archive)

THEN: This “real photo postcard” was sold on stands throughout the city. It was what it claimed to be; that is, its gray tones were real. If you studied them with magnification the grays did not turn into little black dots of varying sizes. (Courtesy, David Chapman and

THEN: Through its two decades — 1892 to 1913 — at the northeast corner of Cherry Street and Third Avenue, the Seattle Theatre was one of the classiest Seattle venues for legitimate theater as well as variety/vaudeville

THEN: The clerk in the city's old Engineering Vault attends to its records. Now one of many thousands of images in the Seattle Municipal Archives, this negative is dated Jan. 30, 1936. (Check out to see more.)

THEN: Looking east on University Street towards Ninth Avenue, ca. 1925, with the Normandie Apartments on the left.

THEN: In Lawton Gowey’s 1961 pairing, the Smith Tower (1914) was the tallest building in Seattle, and the Pioneer Square landmark Seattle Hotel (1890) had lost most of its top floor. (by Lawton Gowey)

THEN: The original for this scene of a temporary upheaval on Mill Street (Yesler Way) was one of many historical prints given to the Museum of History and Industry many years ago by the Charles Thorndike estate. Thorndike was one of Seattle’s history buffs extraordinaire. (Courtesy, Museum of History and Industry.)

THEN: Seen here in 1887 through the intersection of Second Avenue and Yesler Way, the Occidental Hotel was then easily the most distinguished in Seattle. (Courtesy Museum of History and Industry)

THEN: Friends of the Market president, architect Victor Steinbrueck, leads a cadre of Friends marching for Market preservation in front of the Seattle City Hall most likely on March 18, 1971. (Photo by Tom Brownell from the Post-Intelligencer collection at MOHAI)

THEN: Local candy-maker A.W. Piper was celebrated here for his crème cakes and wedding cakes and also his cartoons. This sketch is of the 1882 lynching from the Maple trees beside Henry and Sara Yesler’s home on James Street. Piper’s bakery was nearby (Courtesy, Ron Edge)

THEN: A half-century after they reached the top of First Hill, electric streets cars and cable cars prepare to leave it. (Courtesy, The Museum of History and Industry)





3 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: A look at first hill from the courthouse roof, 1917”

    1. We can only speculate, but it may be to mark the death of Judge Robert Brooke Albertson, who died in early October of 1917.

      1. I am always impressed by the clarity of the old photographs. Can you do a piece in “Now and Then” showing the old cameras and how they processed the film.

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